Review by Bette Kiernan
The thoroughly enchanting San Francisco Ballet, Cinderella, is an artistic collaboration for the ages now playing at War Memorial Opera House located at 301 Van Ness Avenue in the Civic Center. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Costume and Set designer Julian Crouch, Lighting Director Natasha Katz, Music Director Craig Lucas and Puppeteer Basil Twist’s collaboration fuses their special talents and expertise into the most creative and imaginative production of Cinderella ever performed. Together they weave the symbolic language of fairy tales into an eloquent and humor filled epic rendition of Cinderella’s suffering and ultimate transcendence. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue in the Civic Center – See more at: http://www.sfballet.org/planyourvisit
Wheeldon and his team’s genius lies in their abilities to understand and emphasize the important symbols and patterns that underlie the heroine’s journey. Fairy tales, like dreams, are comprised of poetic images that go deeper than rational thought and are directly understood by the psyche. The brilliant set designs and costumes are instrumental in translating basic forms found in nature, dreams, groups and fairy tales into the most fantastic visionary depiction of Cinderella ever created. Her story, expressed through vibrant music, color, dance and sound, has a spellbinding impact. Varied narratives of Cinderella have emerged in different eras and cultures throughout the world. For example, in some, her dead mother appears to render her magic aid, or in India, she appears as a cow. In other versions, animals emerge to assist Cinderella in executing seemingly insurmountable tasks such as sorting a mountain of jumbled peas, beans and seeds. Endings also differ. In some, Cinderella sends birds to peck out the eyes of the stepsisters, while in others, she kindly invites them to live with her in the castle. For most variants, the initially sad situation is balanced by the happy ending of Cinderella’s ultimate ascent to her rightful high place in society.
In this gift of a production, no stone is left unturned in conveying the dynamic processes of transformation. Alchemy, the ancient’s ways of changing lead into gold, to ultimately yield the Elixir of Life, is skillfully used to add power and excitement. Throughout the performance, change is underscored by the use of the alchemical stages in set designs and costume. Alchemy, like nature, goes through distinct color changes. Initially, there is a blackening, then reddening, to the clearing of blue to be completed at its final golden destination. The show opens with a full media presentation featuring a glorious sky and gentle warm breezes suggested by subtlety shifting, billowy white clouds in a sunshiny background. The euphoric mood of Cinderella’s early childhood envelops the audience. Then suddenly, Blackbirds appear and fly swiftly across the stage as clouds and sky begin to ominously darken. Richly symbolic cross culturally, the Blackbird is often found to signify impending death. The Nigredo, or blackening, expands as the young, happy Cinderella at play with her loving parents is left bereft after her mother suddenly falls ill and dies. The dark mood of overwhelming grief and loss suffuses everything. The muses first appear blackly costumed to offer their needed protection to the now vulnerable, motherless Cinderella.
As the set changes to depict the stepmother’s home, costumes and set redden in color and emotion. Cinderella, in a rage, throws flowers on the ground that were given to her in welcome. Her father had betrayed her beloved mother by too soon taking a new family. Cinderella subsequently angers the stepmother, who in response forces her subservience and seals her fate as a scapegoated servant in the blended family drama. The smallest scrap of affection from her father is immediately squelched by the wicked stepmother to assure that good things go only to her own spoiled and inwardly ugly daughters. The characteristic red associated with the evil stepfamily, follows them to the Ball scene wherein the stepsister’s gowns cloak them in the shades of red associated with jealousy and anger. A fabulous mixed media presentation of the fireplace further enlivens the continually changing fire as it progresses from flames to smoke. The red glow of hearth becomes the central motif that focuses attention on the powers of fire to change one substance into another. The fire mirrors Cinderella and her family as they continually shift.
Fairy tales, ever in movement toward harmony, guide Wheeldon to feature the fireplace as a symbol of nurturance and warmth. The presence of the evil stepmother and her daughters, is counterbalanced by the transitions of the magical fireplace that alternately flames and smokes in relation to the story’s progression. Each time the muses appear, their costumes lighten. The initial black goes from grey to light blue. Shifting happens again in the Dance of the Fairies in their nature colored costumes of blues and greens that depict the clearing and healing of the blue stage of Alchemy. The final alchemical work is close as the muses masks turn to gold, and Cinderella dances at the Ball in her glowing golden gown. The jewel tones of the reveler’s effervescent evening dresses take on the ever changing roaring blazes, bright flickers and glowing embers of the fireside. Cinderella’s slippers too are golden, and create a wonderfully fitting variation of the usual glass ones. The pièce de résistance is the magical tree! The miraculous tree originally sprang from the place where Cinderella’s tears fell after her mother’s death. In cross cultural versions of Cinderella, the tree, symbolizing the Tree of Life, varies from country to country. In China, it is a Peach; in Celtic regions, it is the sacred Hazel; and in the Middle Eastern version, it is a Date Palm. Other trees in fairy tales even speak and give prophetic utterances, or grow from the bones of animals.
But the tree and carriage sequence designed by puppeteer Basil Twist is by far the most extraordinary of all trees-whether found in the fairy tales of any land-or nature! This tree shakes, shudders, twists as it changes form, seasons and colors to become the essence of enchantment for Wheeldon’s ballet. In the Fairy Dance at the tree, the message of the potential for healing in nature is exquisitely expressed. The blue and green dresses worn by the fairies as they swirl gracefully, evoke the sense of actually being in the natural world. Cinderella’s dance moves alter in this scene from the previously sad steps into a sprightly fairy greeting. The transformation by the muses of the tree branches into a wheel-spinning carriage to take Cinderella to the ball is breathtaking. Judging from the gasps heard from the audience, the magic delighted many. In that moment, anything in the world seemed possible. The mandala forms used in sacred rites, are evident in the design of the charming carriage wheels, and contribute even more new energies of change and harmony. The Ball Scene is a never to be forgotten phenomenon. As Cinderella dances with the prince in her golden gown, hope for our own happy endings is instilled. Glorious costumes of the birds, cymbalists and other merrymakers showcased the unusual creativity behind the production. The chairs move in a most incredible way to form a perfect arc over the stage to enhance the setting. Their movement suggests the circle of completion to balance and harmony is close.
Wit and comedy especially sparkle throughout. The stepmother, still drunk from the ball, vomits into the breakfast cereal! What better way to portray the essence of the dark negative mother? As the story begins to draw toward a close, the originally haughty superior acting-but now inebriated and stupidly stumbling-evil woman changes places with Cinderella. Cinderella is now the genuinely superior one and the holder of true elegance, grace and beauty. The scene where the slipper was tried on by ball goers in the Prince’s effort to find Cinderella, was especially charming and amusing as the birds and other beings with strange feet were unceremoniously dismissed. As the shoes were tried on, fitters reactions to smelly feet were hilarious. Varied Cinderella stories have different endings. In Wheeldon’s finale, the power of his dazzling performance is so great that he emotionally carries the audience with Cinderella to join her in joyful feelings of her splendid ending as she is whisked away with the Prince and his royal family to leave the abuse of her early life far behind. As it sets the world right again, The San Francisco Ballet, in its highly creative Cinderella, is truly offering comfort, nurturance and growth for the ballet goer’s soul.